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El Dorado Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer met with small business owners Monday evening for a round table discussion on downtown parking during a regular meeting of the Downtown Business Association.

Business owners cited several grievances with parking downtown – mainly a lack thereof – and sought the mayor’s assistance in finding a solution that would be amenable for both county and retail/service employees while also helping to drive business.

Problems

“I just want to hear what you all think would work and what the City could do to help make that work,” Smith-Creer said. “I know it’s going to take all of us working together, regardless of what we come up with.”

The mayor and DBA previously met in February, soon after the termination of former downtown parking attendant Tanzi Shinpoch. In the past, downtown parking attendants have been responsible for ticketing vehicles overstaying the three-hour parking limit during business hours on weekdays.

Not long after Shinpoch’s termination, a federal appeals court ruled that chalking tires violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution; it is thus unclear how a parking attendant would continue to perform their duties, since the chalk aids in determining how long any particular vehicle has been parked somewhere.

Several DBA members complained that without a parking attendant or police officer to enforce the city ordinance concerning parking, the rules essentially become irrelevant.

“As a leaseholder, it’s not my responsibility to enforce these ordinances,” said Greg Harrison, owner of the Olde Towne Store, financial advisor at Edward Jones and a Justice of the Peace on the Union County Quorum Court. “I don’t have the time, just like as business owners, we don’t have the time – we’re in business to do whatever our certain craft is. But if we have an ordinance in place that asks patrons or employees or whoever to be respectful of certain needs that we have downtown, if they’re not respecting it, then whatever entity that is that puts it in place needs to find a way of being able to enforce it, because we, as business owners, we can’t do that.”

Most business owners in attendance said they prohibit their employees from parking in the Union Square District, the 12-block parking zone at issue. In Harrison’s case, it was written into the leasing agreement for one of his businesses, the Olde Towne Store, that employees must park outside of the zone.

The blame for the lack of parking was placed primarily on Union County employees. It was noted that Union County Judge Mike Loftin rents parking spaces in a lot a block off the downtown square that are not utilized, but since courthouse employees answer to the elected official they work under, he does not always have authority to enforce parking outside of the square.

“Judge Loftin has gone door-to-door in the courthouse, but if there’s no consequences…” Rexayn Tribble, DBA president and owner of All About Flowers said.

“The Judge has no leverage,” Paul Choate, owner of CMI Insurance and a member of the El Dorado City Council, cut in. “These people work for other elected officials, so its up to each department head, each elected official, to enforce it.”

Jody Cunningham, administrative assistant to Loftin, said until this year, the county provided 21 parking spaces at $119.60 per year, or $4.60 per pay period, to county courthouse employees; however, since only five spots have been utilized in recent years, this year they scaled it back to 15 spots. Loftin has also written letters to county employees requesting they park in the leased lots.

Tribble emphasized downtown as being a major part of the City of El Dorado, asking why an El Dorado Police officer can’t be made available to enforce parking ordinances.

“I would propose that we are El Dorado. We are the crown jewel, we are it,” Tribble said. “If we do not have a presence of police down here, I mean, I don’t know. I just think that on First Thursdays, there should be an officer roaming around, interacting with people. We’re having this whole push for … where you get along with the police, and the police meet you (community policing) – what better time to be hanging out downtown than on Thursday nights when we’re doing a huge push? They don’t come at all.”

However, Toddy Pitard, owner of Murphy-Pitard Jewelers and a member of the El Dorado Civil Service Commission, which oversees the EPD, said it’s true that the department is very short-staffed at this time. Smith-Creer noted that she did ask Chief Kenny Hickman about reserve officers; she said most of the reserve officers work regular jobs during business hours, when the parking ordinance is in effect.

“It’s not about money – they don’t have any body,” Smith-Creer said. “They don’t have a body.”

Harrison suggested booting vehicles that are parked for an extended period, but the question of how to determine how long a vehicle has been parked without actively watching it was raised. Others noted that even when there was a downtown parking attendant, tickets often went unpaid and fines unenforced.

“I live out of town, I live an hour away from here. I got a parking ticket back when the parking attendant was still here; I got a ticket a week or two after my boss had gotten a parking ticket,” said Tiffany Crews, an employee at Southern Threads Boutique. “She never got anything in the mail, but I received a paper in the mail saying there would be a warrant for my arrest if the ticket was not paid. I just didn’t understand why she didn’t get anything, but I was out of town and I got something. I felt like [it was unfair] since I lived out of town and they didn’t think I knew about downtown.”

Some attendees predicted dire consequences should downtown parking not become more available, and soon.

“Without our downtown, we’ve lost the heart of our city,” Choate said.

Bridging the divide

Pitard proposed one solution that both his fellow business owners and Smith-Creer agreed could help the parking problems.

“Mayor, can we, as we talked about, get an advisory board that is appointed by you, with people that have skin in the game – let them vet out A, B and C, present it to you – ‘this is what we know, this is what we’ve looked at every day,’ – you pick the people, let them come up with a plan,” Pitard suggested. “After we vet it, you vet it and come back to us and say ‘these are some options.’ Would that be something that would be possible to do?”

Smith-Creer green-lit the idea, saying she will soon post a public notice in the News-Times advertising the formation of the task force. The public notice will be required to run for 30 days, during which time those interested in being considered for the task force will be able to submit their names to the Mayor. The task force is expected to be comprised of five to seven members.

“You’ll have 15 days to figure it out, because we have to have it figured out by Oct. 1,” Tribble said, referring to the fast approaching winter holiday season. “It’s going to be fast. It’s going to have to move.”

Tribble said she would submit some names for consideration for the task force, including DBA members, downtown property owners and other “stakeholders” in the parking parley.

“I think we need a building owner, I think we need a retail business person, I think we need a bank, I think we need a restaurant – I think we need a diverse group,” Tribble said.

Pitard noted that in his own research, he’s found parking meter vendors that will install and maintain the meters at their own expense, then share the collections with the city.

Smith-Creer said that until a solution can be found, it will be up to business owners to police their employees’ parking habits.

“No matter what, it is still going to require the business owners and employees to police the streets as well,” she said. “You’ve got to police your street. You’ve got to make sure that your employees are parking where they need to.”

Smith-Creer said she expects the public notice to begin appearing in the News-Times within the week.

Caitlan Butler can be reached at 870-862-6611 or cbutler@eldoradonews.com.

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